This article has been written by Elena Ruiz (except for these lines and the introduction that follows). Elena is a Valencian girl that I met while traveling in Burma (Myanmar). She explained to me that she had spent a month and a half in a Thai temple practicing Vipassana and I found it interesting, so I asked her to share her experience on this blog. On this trip she ended up joining other vipassana retreats at various Buddhist temples for almost a year.
A Vipassana retreat is one of the most remarkable experiences a traveler can do in Thailand.
Introduction: What is Vipassana meditation?
Vipassana meditation is typical of India and is related to Buddhism. ‘Vipassana’ means to see things as they really are. In Thailand and northern India (at McLeod Ganj), it is possible to hold vipassana retreats in Buddhist temples, for a length of 3, 10 or an indefinite number of days. The rules for practicing it in temples are usually strict and entail temporary isolation from society. You are invited to lead an ascetic life in order to focus your full attention on your own body and mind. These stays are generally free, although donations are accepted.
Like other people, there came a time in my life when I decided to drop everything and start traveling.
I was practicing meditation in Spain, so it was clear to me that during my trip I wanted to do a retreat to learn vipassana meditation.
My intention was to spend a few days in meditation and then continue visiting other countries. What I did not foresee was that it would be such a profound experience that it would make me decide to extend my stay at the temple of Thailand.
To this day I have been in Thailand for almost a year. Most of the time in monasteries and specifically at Wat TriVisudhidham Temple, where I am at the time of writing these lines.
What I did not imagine was that it was going to be such a profound experience for me, that it led me to decide to extend my stay in Thailand so I could keep practicing vipassana meditation.
My first Vipassana retreat in Northern Thailand
For my first Vipassana retreat, right after arriving in Thailand, I decided to look for a Wat (temple) in the north of Thailand.
As I had time, I visited several temples that were also meditation centers (I like to see the place first and see if it gives me good vibes).
Of the ones I saw, I chose Wat TriVisudhidham as it seemed perfect to me for several reasons: warm reception upon arrival, clean, quiet, surrounded by trees, away from the city, etc. And their meditation retreats were open to foreigners ─ unless you know the Thai language an English speaking teacher is essential, and not in all temples there is one, although sometimes there is a translator ─.
So the day I arrived the monk who received me offered me the information brochure of teh centre: they offered a basic course of 26 days (or 10 days for those who don’t have that much time), with the possibility of extending it, in agreement with the teacher. That was exactly what I was looking for .
The brochure also reported on the daily routine and the rules to follow, and gave some general guidelines on the method they use. The monk told me that if I had no doubts I could start my retirement after two days.
For my first day, therefore, I already knew a few temple rules such as: be silent throughout the retreat, wear white loose clothing, do not mix the practice with other techniques, do not read (including Buddhist books) or write (newspapers), don’t use telephones (no communication at all with the outside world).
They also informed me of the dayly schedule:
4 am the bell rings and it is time to get up and practice;
6 am the bell calls for breakfast;
10:30 am the bell calls for lunch (the last solid meal of the day);
2:00 pm daily interview with the teacher;
10:00 pm time to go to sleep dressed in white.
… temple rules such as: to be silent throughout the retreat, to wear white and loosely, not to mix the practice with other techniques, not to read (including Buddhist books) or write (diaries), no telephones (no communication with the outside world)
So I filled a form with my personal details and they assigned me a room in the women’s area, where I would spend so many hours meditating.
After a short break, already dressed in white (there is the possibility of renting clothes in the temple) and with part of the “meditator’s kit” (stopwatch, water bottle and cushion), I joined the rest of the meditators who were also starting on that day.
We were offered a group tour of the temple and received the first instructions of the two types of meditation that are practiced here: walking meditation and sitting meditation, although later the practice would be individual.
Adapting to the practice is easy, as it is progressive (it starts with 15 minutes for both walking and sitting meditation) and no previous experience is necessary, as each additional step is explained to you every day.
The first day was also when I met the abbot (Phra Ajhan), who would be my teacher and spiritual guide. We met at the Opening Ceremony, where we would take the 8 Precepts of Buddhism, something like a code of conduct to follow during the stay in the temple. Among them are, for example: do not kill any living being, do not take what is not given to you, do not eat (solids) after noon, etc.
That was the first day of my first retreat in a Wat or Thai monastery. This time, I would end up staying for 43 days.
During my month and a half stay, in addition to learning Vipassana and practicing Theravada Buddhism (typical of all Southeast Asia), I got to know the Thais very closely. Most of the practitioners in the temple were Thai, and they were very curious about me and liked that I was so interested in learning Vipassana.
My daily life in the Buddhist Temple
The bell can be heard perfectly at 4:00 a.m. so there is no possible excuse for not getting up. I confess that it is still difficult for me to get up so early, although you are learning to fight (su-su as the Thais say) against laziness and to observe your body and mind. After waking up, it is time for meditation practice in my room until breakfast.
For breakfast we all eat together and silence is the protagonist. But before breakfast tribute to Buddha is always paid (three prostrations) and patisanka yoniso (meditation on detachment from food) is prayed among others. After praying, when you finally go to eat, it has been about 30 minutes since you sat down.
For breakfast, we all eat together and silence is the protagonist
After breakfast it is usually time to wash up and clean the room until lunch time. I like to practice meditation outdoors if it’s not too hot.
Lunch follows the same procedure as breakfast.
One of my favorite moments of the day is seeing all the monks lined up in silence, barefoot, holding their bowls to receive the food. For Buddhists, it is a very special moment, and the monk’s chanting to praise the food is one of my favorites.
After lunch there are times when I lie down in bed to relax for a few minutes, but not always since we meditators are not allowed to do so. So I must continue with my practice (I like to go to the small temple that the monks use for the evening chants) until it is time to report to the abbot.
The reporting to the Abbot, with the help of a translator monk, is done every day. All foreign meditators attend (the Thais have a different teacher), enter one by one and kneel before the abbot. First we have to do some prostrations: three to the Buddha, three to the Abbot and one to the translator monk. You must join hands in anjali position (joined at chest height), explain your day’s experience and receive new instructions. I always go out with renewed energy that helps me keep practicing until recess.
At 5:00 p.m. the bell tolls again, this time to indicate it is time to take a hot drink: soy shake, rice, etc. Very good.
There is also a small shop in the temple where you can buy some natural yogurt, which you are allowed to eat. This is the last long break before going to bed.
And finally, the time to go to rest is set by the teacher depending on how long you have already been practicing.
I will always remember the evening time at the temple, when you go to your room to sleep or to continue practicing. Then everything is silent except for the sounds of the nocturnal animal life, and it feels like you are in the middle of a jungle. It is very relaxing.
Following the Buddhist calendar, which in turn follows the phases of the moon, on the weekly Buddha Day there is no reporting to the abbot.
On that day, the abbot invites you to join in the 8:00 p.m. ceremony, which consists of a short speech (dhamma talk) given by him in Thai. Then, we walk barefoot around the chedi (Buddhist monument containing a relic) three times, while carrying incense (for Buddha), a flower (for the shanga: the clergy) and a candle (for dhamma: the scriptures). The latter represents human life, finite, and continuously consumed.
Living with my fellow Vipassana meditators
Although you live with many people in the temple, the instructors emphasize that you shouldn’t talk or even look at people, because you are not there to socialize, but to learn Vipassana and internalize the technique. Which implies being in silence and in mindfulness (full attention without letting your mind wander in thoughts) in each act you perform during the day. Not just when you meditate, but even when you go to sleep and even when you wake up. Therefore, it is a 24-hour mindfulness practice. As the translator monk explained to me one day: If you want an egg to cook, the water must be constantly boiling.
The instructors emphasize that you shouldn’t talk or look at people, because you are not there to socialize, but to learn Vipassana and internalize the technique
In such a long retreat you do a lot of mental purification, since there are many thoughts that come to you, some about your life, and most of them are not very pleasant. It is also caused by spending a long time with yourself without talking or looking at others because, as the teacher said, during Vipassana you should not care about others, but focus on yourself.
Many times you are afraid of your own thoughts, but you realize that Vipassana is a great opportunity to get to know yourself and learn to accept who you are.
Metta (loving kindness) is also practiced in the temple, and above all you begin to observe your mind and the tricks that it plays on you.
I am currently in another temple
After this first 42-day retreat, I still wanted to go deeper and get to know other monasteries and other forms of practice, so I continued this journey that led me to the temple I’m currently in. However, my first retreat and my first monastery were very special to me. Vipassana practice turned my life around.
I hope my experience encourages you to approach the practice of vipassana, whether here in Thailand or wherever you are.
And as the teacher told me at the farewell: practice as much as you can.
Bhavatusabbamangalani. Elena Ruiz. (End of Elena’s article)
Where to do Vipassana Meditation in Thailand?
If you want to stay for several days in a temple in Thailand, you just have to get in touch telling them when you want to go, and they will tell you what steps to follow. As I mentioned before, it is generally free, but donations are accepted.
The requirements to access, in addition to strictly following its rules, are usually to bring two sets of white clothes, flowers, candles, incense sticks, passport, passport photos, and a photocopy of the passport pages where the visa and entry stamps are. Some temples require a minimum stay of 10 days, while others only 2 or 3.
Some temples in Thailand that accept foreigners to do Vipassana retreats are:
- Bangkok: Wat Mahatat and the Young Buddhists Association of Thailand (they have several centers).
- Chiang Mai: Wat Ram Poeng and Wat Phra Dhatu Sri Chomthong (0 5382 6869).
- Pathum Thani: The Middle Way Meditation Retreat